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Carving a Native Kwakwaka'wakw Totem Pole With Rupert Scow

Marsha is happy hiking, writing, and wood carving, mainly using her knives and gouges on red and yellow cedar to carve lots of chips.

Xwi Xwi

Xwi Xwi

Rupert Scow patiently teaching us to carve a small totem pole

Rupert Scow patiently teaching us to carve a small totem pole

Kwakwawka'ka-Style Carving: Learning Carving With Rupert Scow

I was very excited when I learned that Rupert Scow was offering a class in West Coast Native Carving, Kwakwawka'wakw (Kwakiutl) style. Rupert is a West Coast native carving teacher from the village of Gwa'yasdums on Gilford Island across from Alert Bay.

The class was to be held at Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast in Southwestern BC. I very much wanted to take the class but didn't know if it would be too hard for me. I was afraid I would not be able to keep up with the other carvers. The course was advertised as suitable for intermediate and advanced carvers, which I am, but we were advised to bring adzes.

I have made an adz (which is a carving tool that is sort of a cross between an ax and a gouge.) I own two adzes. But despite excellent instruction and encouragement from friends and teachers, I have never really been able to master the adz, so instead, I usually use a band saw, gouges, crooked and straight blades. Carvers who master the smooth slicing chop of adzing can remove a lot of wood effectively—but not me. When I try to use my adz, I chop away and get sore wrists and blisters and risk chopping my own arms and legs and people around me.

When I was a child growing up in Vancouver, I loved to stare up at the many totem poles in Stanley Park and at the University of British Columbia. I am ashamed to say as kids, we used to climb on the poles and dare each other to put our hands in the gaping mouths. I always preferred the dramatic multi-colored carvings from the northern part of Vancouver Island. In those days, this Aboriginal 1st nation was mistakenly called Kwakiutl, an error made in part because the pronunciation is hard for native English speakers.

Once when I was little, I saved my allowance until I had $10 and took the bus downtown to the Hudson's Bay Company department store. My aunt worked in the "Indian" souvenir department and sold me a small brightly painted pole Kwakiutl style, which I treasured and still have 60 years later.

How to Identify Kwakwaka'waka Carvings

One way to differentiate a Kwakwaka'wakw carving from the equally beautiful Haida or Gitxsan Wesuwetan carvings is in the use of color. The Haida and Gitxsannations use mainly or exclusively red and black accents on natural wood. The Kwakwaka'ka often cover the carving with color: white, red, and black form lines and secondary colors brown, green, yellow, and orange.

Another way to differentiate is to look at the shapes. Traditionally, the Haida carvings are flatter, and the Kwakwaka'wakw carvings are more deeply carved and rounded. Kwakwaka'wakw style has been called the baroque of West Coast carving because of the use of dramatic, exaggerated shapes and bright colors. The large masks with many moving parts manipulated by strings must look fantastic in the longhouse dances.

In those same years, the 1950s, I watched native master carvers carving gigantic poles for the University of British Columbia and the Royal Victoria Museum. It seemed like magic watching the dramatic faces and animals emerging from the wood. It never occurred to me that I could learn to carve these figures.

Rupert Scow comes from a line of carvers living in the Alert Bay/Gilford Island area of Northern Vancouver Island. His ancestors were famous for their beautifully carved totem poles and articulated masks. These masks were worn by the costumed dancers in the dance dramas of the potlatch. A potlatch is a festival of family honor where, in the old days, families gained status and respect based not on how much wealth they had but on how much wealth they were able to give away.

During our five-day carving course, I hoped that Rupert would tell us stories about the longhouse celebrations and about the spirits and family crests depicted by the masks.

Brightly painted Kwakwawka'wakw mask by Rupert Scow

Brightly painted Kwakwawka'wakw mask by Rupert Scow

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